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On a clear blue day Saturday, Law Roach, Hollywood fashion ambassador, THR power stylist and image architect to the likes of Zendaya, Celine Dion, Tiffany Haddish, Anya Taylor-Joy and Naomi Osaka, was among the guests sitting in chairs spread out on the lawn of Villa Lewaro to witness the haute couture runway debut from Pyer Moss, the first Black American fashion house ever invited to show by Paris’ Chambre Syndicale.
For Roach, like many in the crowd, it was the second trek in two days about 30 miles north of New York to the bucolic and historic early 20th-century estate in Irvington, New York, of Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of slaves who became the first woman in America to become a self-made millionaire.
The first time out on the previous Thursday afternoon, the skies had opened, and the torrential rain never let up even though a soggy, but game crowd waited more than four hours for things to improve. A rescheduled show went forward Saturday, minus a few guests including Tracee Ellis Ross who couldn’t change their schedules, but who had said somewhat prophetically at the time, “I would go through hell and high water for Kerby Jean-Raymond.” Alas, high water won out.
Saturday was an entirely different story, as veteran activist Elaine Brown first took the stage to exhort the crowd “to get back on the freedom train.” One of the last vestiges of the Black Panthers and its only female in a leadership role, the 78-year-old Brown was dressed in diaphanous white and heeled boots and set the tone for the event, saying, “Let’s recognize that we have the power in us. All power to the people.”
Jean-Raymond’s show, entitled WAT U IZ, then unfolded on a cobalt runway that surrounded circular platforms with male dancers in white suits and rapper 22Gz in performance. The first look was a circular skirt made to look like a bottlecap, the first of a parade of sculptural outfits including a chessboard, a jar of peanut butter, a cloak made completely of hair rollers and a Swarovski crystal-fringed lamp “like everyone’s grandmother had,” said one onlooker. All were meant to evoke the inventiveness of Black people, but the looks also included the likeness of a refrigerator with magnets that read, “But who invented Black trauma?”
“We went through rounds and rounds of design,” Jean-Raymond told the Associated Press after the show, nodding to the painstaking handmade tradition of the haute couture. The cape took months, he added. “It was just people sitting there and curling real weaves onto hair rollers. You know, the bottle-cap took two months. Every time we made something, we sat back, we thought, ‘How can we make it better?’ And every time the construction got more complicated.”
Reached the day after the show, Roach took some time to share his thoughts on the history-making catwalk, the meaning of the show and the overdue need for recognition for Black entrepreneurship in America.
It was such a beautiful afternoon, and I was wondering what were you thinking about when you were watching the show? What went through your mind?
Well, you know, I am very Black, so I understood the references. At the second look, I was like, “oh, okay, this is what he’s doing.” He’s paying homage to all the things that have become so important and so obvious in American culture that was really bred from African American inventions and inventors and entrepreneurs. So, I knew, I knew right away what the story was and to tell that type of story on the grounds of not only the first African American millionaire. It was just a beautiful story and then also there were small nuances that I think were really important.
Can you tell me a couple of the nuances that you particularly noticed or, or dwelled on?
Just let me just back it up for a second. For me, it was very heavy to be at Madam, C.J. Walker’s home. Even just look at the trees that were on the property, those were the same trees that she looked at when she lived there. And she bought that property in 1913, I think, and that was not that long after slavery. So, all those things that just feel so heavy and so important, and it gives me great gratitude that I was there, looking at those same trees a hundred or so years later was just overwhelming to me. I sat in the rain, and I was happy to do it. When the show got rescheduled, I was supposed to be back in L.A. and I had a job and I decided that was more important.
The second look, I noticed the model was looking through the parted curtains, like from the outside.
The one that was kind of like the Scarlett O’Hara dress. Well, if you go back and watch that movie, it was riddled with racism. The first thing people probably want to write about is the Carol Burnett parody of Scarlett O’Hara and we actually recreated that look for Tiffany Haddish when she hosted the Billboard [Music] Awards because Carol Burnett was one of her idols. I just took it from the standpoint of knowing that movie and the history of that movie and the way that black people were portrayed in such a famous film.
Do you have any other nuances that you would like to point out that really struck you?
No, because I felt some of the nuance was for Black people. It was for us. It was things that that you won’t understand unless you grew up in this country. The African American experience is totally different from every other Black experience around the world. Our experiences are our own and so some of the nuances of the things that he presented and the way he presented it and the performance, in the beginning, you know it, if you aren’t a part of the culture, you wouldn’t have gotten it and it’s not for you. It was a celebration of African American input and influence in this country that has never really been celebrated, right? And, so, I take ownership of that show and that performance and those clothes and that story because that, in my opinion, was for us.
There was a young Black woman I was talking to after the show and she said it was sort of like Beauty and the Beast with the objects coming to life and what they represented about growing up Black.
I think he chose to do it in a way that everybody’s calling camp but I didn’t think it was camp at all. I think if you didn’t understand the story, you might compare it to a Jeremy Scott in a Moschino show, like when the stoplight look came out. And Jeremy is the king of camp. But I didn’t take it that way at all, I think he used those clothes merely just to tell stories.
I agree with you.
Right, if you think about peanut butter, it’s a huge part of Americana, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and for the most part, people know that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. But the sad part about that story is that for this Black man who invented it and his family, if our white counterparts invent something, then that creates generational wealth, and their family owns that company. To my knowledge, there’s no Black-owned peanut butter. It’s like the things that we created out of necessity, like the fire extinguisher, the lock and key, the fire escape, [which] have become all part of our everyday life and that we created them and we have no ownership in. That tells the story of how America treats Black people.
It’s interesting that he chose that as a couture message.
People might have expected him to send out beautiful dresses and Kirby knows how to make beautiful clothes, but he knew that the world would be watching, as it was, for him to be the first Black American designer to even be invited to show during couture, and again my opinion, he took an opportunity that has never been afforded to anyone like him to tell a story and to pay homage to Black people. And I think it was very brave of him.
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